How Can I Help My Research Graduate Students Plan For Their Careers?

by Danielle Barkley (PhD), Graduate Educator Centre for Student Involvement & Careers

As a faculty member, you almost certainly have a major influence on the career thinking of the graduate students you supervise. The career paths for graduate students in all academic fields are becoming increasingly diverse; data from the UBC PhD Career Outcomes Report shows that of individuals who completed a PhD between 2005 and 2013, 51% of graduates are working in higher education, 26% are in the private sector, and 13% are in the public and non-profit sectors. As a result, more and more graduate students feel unsure about what career options they might choose to pursue after completing their degree. Graduate students gain a great deal of confidence when they know that their supervisor is committed to helping them build a thriving career, whether that takes them to a research-intensive position, a teaching-focused role, or work outside of the academy. Given that the trajectory of your students’ career paths might vary widely, here are some positive practices.

Consider Many Definitions of Success

Show your support for a range of careers and acknowledge the reasons that someone might choose to pursue different kinds of work. What an individual defines as professional success will be tied to their personal goals and values, and what your graduate student envisions as an ideal career outcome may be quite different from your own priorities. A supervisor who discusses different types of work openly signals that they value multiple post-degree outcomes and understand how training in a given discipline can bring value to a range of career paths.

Know that You Don’t Have to Know All the Answers

Your graduate students may be interested in career paths you know very little about. In that case, support may come in the form of referrals. At UBC, there are many places where graduate students can gain information about careers, professional development, and skill-building opportunities. You might consider suggesting that your student consult an advisor at the Centre for Student Involvement and Careers (which offers weekly graduate-only drop-in hours as well as options to book individual appointments) or attend a workshop through Graduate Pathways to Success, a palette of non-credit workshops, seminars, and activities. The Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Alumni website or data from the PhD Career Outcomes Report can also serve as excellent starting points for career exploration. Alumni Career Services are available either to current graduate students who have earned a previous degree at UBC, or to students after the completion of their program.

Share the Knowledge and Connections You Have

If you have previously worked in a field that is of interest to your graduate students, or have contacts and collaborators involved in that kind of work, a simple introduction can be a great way to help your supervisees broaden their networks. You might also consider former students whom you have kept in touch with—where are they currently employed, and would they be open to mentoring current grads? Many academic departments regularly host alumni nights highlighting individuals who now work in diverse fields. Finally, don’t forget about friends, family members, and former classmates. Depending on what paths interest your students, useful connections may be found outside of traditional professional networks.

Encourage Curiosity

Graduate studies allows students not only to deepen their knowledge of an academic discipline, but also to develop their professional skills and explore different kinds of work that they might want to pursue in the future. UBC is a leader in innovative opportunities for graduate students, with offerings ranging from the Public Scholars Initiative to PhD Co-Op Programs (available in English and History) and the 3 Minute Thesis Competition. Many Masters programs also have co-op options available. If you think your student’s research might be a good fit for one of these programs or if they are expressing interest in exploring these types of options, a supervisor’s support makes a world of difference.